Are you seeking happiness? Are you trying to make other people happy? What means and methods are you using to achieve your desired outcomes?
Awareness of our motivations can be elusive. We may be unsure and sometimes conflicted. Or we can take for granted that our actions and desires are plainly sensible in response to the demands of others or in pursuit of obviously important outcomes. Whatever we think we're up to, true motivations can be disguised or misguided in our efforts to get what we want and what we think will produce happiness.
My work with people requires that I be interested in their needs and wants, as well as that I exercise discernment in determining their motivations and the factors that drive their habits. Indeed, I am very interested in people's needs and wants, and I have many opportunities to explore these with the people in my life, particularly my patients. In addition to being sensitive and reflective regarding their points of view, I make a practice to challenge them and question them about why they think, believe, feel, and act in the ways they do. In other words, what logic, experience, and/or evidence supports what they say to explain their views and behaviors
A typical interaction with a 12-year-old patient illustrates this dynamic. The boy was notorious in his family for dawdling, forgetting, and responding slowly and carelessly to his responsibilities. In a friendly manner, I asked him what his parents expected of him and what he thought about those expectations. Not surprisingly (in my experience), he listed the important chores and academic responsibilities that matched what his parents had emphasized to me privately with great frustration. It was good that he knew what they wanted. Even better, in response to my queries, he agreed that his parents' requirements and expectations were "reasonable." My subsequent questions were more exacting: how well and to what degree was he following through on what he had just deemed was reasonable?
"A lot of the time I don't do what I'm supposed to."
"Why is that?" I asked gently.
"Well, I often don't feel like it," he replied.
"I got it. I appreciate your honesty. It may help you to know that you are not the only kid who feels and acts that way." This statement seemed to make him less guarded and more interested in the conversation.
I continued, "So, given that you often don't feel like doing what's required, why should you do it? And what motivates you to do what's expected?"
"Well," he offered, "I just want to make my parents happy."
Here was my opening to generate the safe space for him to reflect upon his assumptions and his true motivations—and also to guide him along a more responsible and satisfying path.
"Are there any other reasons to do what you're supposed to other than to make your parents happy?" I asked.
"No," he shrugged.
"Well, I have a number of things to say about this, and I hope you will consider them. You are not responsible for making your parents 'happy.' Perhaps what you mean by 'happy' is that they will get off your back and stop reminding and criticizing you. I can understand that you would want that, but it's not the same as making your parents 'happy.' People are responsible for their own happiness, whatever that may be in their views and experiences. When we try to make others 'happy,' we are stepping beyond what constitutes our responsibilities and the boundaries that rightfully separate us from others.
"You cannot make someone else 'happy.' However, you can do many things to please others, thereby meeting their needs, serving and caring about them, relieving their burdens, and fulfilling your obligations and commitments. So, besides getting your parents to stop nagging you, doing what's expected helps them and your family—there's simply too much work in your household for one or two people to do, and so we share chores and responsibilities when we live in a family.
"Additionally, when you fulfill your commitments and keep your word, you'll develop trust with others. This is critical to developing good relationships. Without trust, reliability, and dependability, things fall apart. Another reason to do what you're supposed to is that by so doing, you will feel good about yourself. You'll acquire competence, confidence, and trust in yourself. Your self-esteem will rise. (Self-esteem is comprised of living out the answers to the questions: What I am good at? And what am I good for?)
"Also, you should do what your parents require because you should practice obedience. This is necessary for proper relationships with those in authority. Practicing obedience to God-given, legitimate authority leads to positive practical and spiritual outcomes. I think it's acceptable to question the reasons for being required to do certain things; and I think it's encouraging that you find the answers 'reasonable.' But in the end, understanding and accepting the reasons is simply agreement—this is helpful, but it is not sufficient, as is obedience and follow-through.
"So there are good reasons to do what you ought beyond vague notions of making your parents 'happy.' Since you brought it up, though, let's talk about what leads to 'happiness.' In this discussion, we will also consider what motivates people to do what they ought, even when they don't feel like it."
Thereupon, I interacted with my 12-year-old patient by explaining the fundamentals of behavior change, positive character building, and happiness. The elements of the discussion are extrapolated here for those of all ages to consider and benefit.
The word, please, has two basic meanings: one meaning is that of polite entreaty, making a request—as in, "Would you please pass the salt?" In our culture (and others) using the word, please, doesn't always mean that the listener has a choice about whether to grant the request—as in the police officer saying, "License and registration, please." Or, when the business owner says, "I'll have to ask you to leave, please."
The other meaning of please means to "act to the pleasure or satisfaction of..." It is this meaning of please that is most important for behavior and happiness. When you seek to please someone, you are putting yourself in a position of service, often with the implication of some effort or sacrifice on your part for the benefit of others. Wanting to please implies that the needs and desires of another person come ahead of your own.
When you develop and maintain an attitude and demeanor aimed at pleasing others, you not only become a servant and grow in humility, but you also become a more attractive and admirable person yourself. When you consider "pleasing," do not allow thoughts of being a doormat or seeming spineless to intrude.
Also, realizing intellectually that pleasing others is the key element in what you want to do and who you want to be is a first step. Then, emotionally you must relinquish what someone has done wrong that you feel must be redressed before you can forgive or truly please; without this piece, you would be on the wrong track.
The antidote for harboring grudges is to deliberately choose to free yourself from the burden of your resentment. Developing the habit of pleasing others will invigorate your attraction to and desire for engagement with others, even when they seem or act unlovable. Holding people accountable is a different matter than seeking retribution or "payback."
The attitudes and behaviors that comprise the desire to please stem from a fundamental conviction about what constitutes your role in a healthy relationship and your commitment to remain constant and committed to proper principles and intentions, even in the face of resentment, hostility, or lack of reciprocation. The temptation to respond with aggression or vengeance can be profoundly counterproductive. Demonstrating with your behavior and leadership by taking deliberate steps to please others is the far better alternative.
In the realm of pleasing, what matters is intention. As you find ways to express your desire to please, this desire strengthens you and softens the defenses of those around you. It's hard to fight or to stay angry with someone who wants to please you and shows you that attitude. You may find it difficult to please your close ones, and perhaps you have tried many times and have not found the right avenues. Indeed, after some period of time in a tempestuous relationship, one or both people may become difficult to please or may seem to set the standards too high. This is quite common, but don't be deterred. Instead, persevere with the knowledge that after some period of testing or disbelief, the other person will ultimately realize the integrity and consistency of your intentions. It would also help to ask directly and repeatedly for specific behaviors on your part that will provide pleasure and satisfaction. (For more elaboration on pleasing, see Chapter 6 of my book, Staying Madly in Love With your Spouse: Guide to a Happier Marriage.)
If you make it a practice to aim to please other people, you'll find that life is a lot less threatening and onerous. You'll discover how needy and hurting so many people are and how your seemingly small efforts can make a huge difference. You will feel better about yourself for trying, and you'll become more approachable and attractive to others.
Seeking to please is a key activity on the path of happiness.
The universal expression of gratitude is thank you or thanks. We say thank you perfunctorily, and we say it when we are indeed truly appreciative or grateful. Sometimes the depth of feeling or indebtedness seems too profound to be adequately expressed by the same "thanks" that would accompany the receipt of change or exchange in a sales interaction.
Giving thanks or being thankful goes beyond the ritual and cursory utterance of "thank you." To be truly thankful implies some degree of supplication and indebtedness to the provider of goods, services, relief, favor, or blessing. The phrase, much obliged, is sometimes used synonymously for thank you; in these words, we see the nuance of indebtedness to the receiver of this expression as an acknowledgment of obligation to recognize the provision of favor or benefit to the person expressing appreciation. To be obliged or thankful connotes the opposite of entitlement.
In a world where most people think and behave in a context (largely subconscious) that life owes them, being thankful is a refreshing and soul-enhancing state of mind and practice that controverts entitlement. It is like healthful nutrition amid a sea of junk food detritus and self-privilege.
The practice of being thankful makes us humble. Such a habit is truly an "attitude of gratitude." There are so many things for which each of us has to be thankful. The inner recitation of thanks is prayerful, a gracious entreaty that could take much time if one were to include all the things for which one should rightfully be grateful. Fortunately, this thanksgiving habit can be silently exercised throughout the day, in small pockets of homage to the Creator, in the course of living life and doing ordinary things.
To advance the practice of gratitude, try giving thanks also for obstacles that beset you, misfortunes, pain, and suffering. This may seem beyond the ken for many people. How and why should we be thankful for misery and misfortune? I am not suggesting that you enjoy the bad stuff that life inevitably brings; or that you try to figure out or justify adversity and suffering in some cosmic plan that reveals its comprehensibility to you. Rather, by accepting adversity and suffering, by yielding to its intrusion upon you as making possible God's will and opportunities that you may not recognize or predict, you are becoming holier and humbler than you ever do solely through your own will and planning. By so doing, you are relinquishing the struggle and bitterness that accompany resistance and resentment, and you are aligning yourself with the will and comfort of a glorious God who—with a control and purview beyond human rational understanding—both suffers himself and allows and controls suffering! (Don't try to figure this out, just pray about it.)
Thanking God for blessings as well as adversity makes you stronger and more flexible in the practice and attitude of gratitude. This resource and habit will not let you down.
Anne Lamott is an author I greatly admire. Her book, Help, Thanks, Wow, keenly summarizes prayers into the three categories of the title. Our entreaties of prayer and appeal to a most powerful God are those of Help—when we need things and find ourselves insufficient; Thanks—for granting blessing, providence, and even misfortune that God knows are in his plan for us; and Wow—expressions of acknowledgment of the awesome splendor and holy qualities of God.
From Lamott's succinct and fitting title categories, I have adapted the simple structure of Please, Thanks, Happy: a way to conceptualize and practice attitudes and behaviors that bring rewards and integrity.
The process of giving thanks directly inhibits the insidious habits of arrogance and frustration, because thankfulness is incompatible with these self-serving attitudes and reactions. Every motion of gratitude is a footfall on the path of happiness.
What does it mean to be happy? Different things appeal to different folks, so what represents happiness can vary widely among individuals.
For some, happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. A variety of biological, psychological, religious, and philosophical approaches have striven to define happiness and identify its sources. Philosophers and religious thinkers often define happiness in terms of living a good life, or flourishing, rather than simply as an emotion. Yet "a good life" is as varied in meaning as there are individual perspectives. Some common denominators emerge regarding what makes people happy. Most people seek and need at least a sufficient level of meeting basic material needs in order to feel emotionally content on a continuing basis (though there are many exceptions to this).
"Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" were deemed to be unalienable rights by the United States Declaration of Independence. The founding fathers of this country meant by "pursuit of happiness" the right to acquire property. No wonder, then, that for many people, happiness is represented and experienced by getting material possessions.
There is a contemporary movement known as positive psychology: this is the social science that attempts to understand what makes people happy.
Sonja Lyubomirsky is a prominent name in the field of positive psychology. She is a researcher and psychology professor at the University of California who has extensively studied happiness. She concludes in her book, The How of Happiness, that 50 percent of a given human's happiness level is genetically determined (based on twin studies), 10 percent is affected by life circumstances and situation, and a remaining 40 percent of happiness is subject to self-control. When interpreting such statistics, it is important to understand that these figures are merely correlative appraisals—that is, they are based upon subjective reports compared with descriptions of aggregate populations. In other words, they do not give realistic information about causation.
Lyubomirsky's statistic about "genetic" sourcing in happiness may surprise some and perhaps suggest that the die is cast largely by your heritage in determining your own happiness. (Lord, if that were true, I would be living a life of personal delusion!) Yet Lyubomirsky also attributes happiness as 40 percent subject to self-control. That's a lot of wiggle room for self-determination.
Since happiness is so personal and subjective, how does one set expectations, standards, and methods to attain happiness?
In thinking about this issue, I find that the concept and experience of happiness divides along two sides:
The first set of efforts are directed toward and limited by individual efforts. Our present Western cultural ethos and environment encourages hedonism, self-satisfaction, individual effort, self-determination, and personal values.
The second set of efforts are governed by a God-centered world view in which satisfaction and personal growth come through a right relationship with God, according to his principles, as laid out in the Bible and through relationship with his son and representative, Jesus Christ.
In his book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller explains that within the Western secular view, suffering is an interruption of the freedom to live as makes you happiest. Accordingly in the populist view, the circumstances that cause suffering and the negative emotions that go with it must be removed or minimized and managed. However, this approach has severe limitations and fallacies. Suffering is not only an inevitable part of life, but is woven into the fabric of experiencing true happiness. Keller maintains that there is a principle at the heart of the Christian life that is expressed by two famous sayings of Jesus:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)
Whoever finds their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39)
Keller continues: "In the first reference, Jesus is saying, "Happy is the one who seeks not happiness but righteousness." Happiness is a by-product of wanting something more than happiness—to be rightly related to God and our neighbor. If you seek God as the non-negotiable good of your life, you will get happiness thrown in. If, however, you aim mainly at personal happiness, you will get neither. The same principle is conveyed in the second saying. If you are willing to lose your life for his sake—if you are willing to set aside personal safety, comfort, and satisfaction in order to obey and follow Jesus—then in the end you will find yourself."
Actually, it is possible to incorporate both approaches to happiness described above—as long as you prioritize the relationship with God first. Any reliance on personal experience or identity leaves you vulnerable to loss and thereby loss of happiness. However, if your identity and contentment derives from knowing and practicing the all-encompassing love and salvation from God—unmerited, granted by grace—then you can experience continuing happiness at levels you never imagined.
Psychological and Behavioral Roles of Please and Thank You
In addition to the spiritual and cleansing effects of pleasing others and being grateful, the habits of please and thank you carry behavioral consequences that will make you happier.
The attitude and practice of pleasing tends to make others act more favorably toward you. While this is neither a certainty nor a guarantee, behaving with intent to please softens anger and encourages people to become calmer and less defensive or aggressive. It's hard to keep fighting with someone who isn't fighting back. Intending to please others enables them to feel less threatened. In the aura of safety, willingness, and encouragement, other people will tend to let their guard down, look for the positive, and react more favorably to your ideas and overtures. Yes, this is difficult to do in the face of adversity and the swell of adrenalin that usually accompanies conflict; but with practice, you will become deftly and genuinely disarming and will elicit more rewarding responses from the people with whom you engage. This will encourage you to be even more regularly pleasing as a go-to strategy. The cycle will escalate and strengthen itself in the behavioral process known as reinforcement such that the practice of pleasing will be a more natural, effortless, and frequent response. (For detail on the process of reinforcement and how to make it work for you, see my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times.)
Besides the reinforcement from others accrued through pleasing, you can reinforce yourself through the practice of thank you.
When you give thanks, both for blessings and adversity, you are engaging in an act that's incompatible with negativity. Giving thanks—largely a silent, personal, spiritual act—releases you from resentment, bitterness, sarcasm, resistance and rebellion, arrogance, and other assorted negative feelings. As you practice gratitude, you will welcome its peacefulness and release, and you will anticipate and seek these rewards. You will reinforce this attitude and practice, so that as you face the positives and negatives in life, your habit of thankfulness becomes easier and more automatic.
Building Character and HappinessWhat might my adolescent patient (described above) and others do with this information? The central issues are those of motivations, expectations, and reactions to whether and how those expectations are met. On the surface, my patient was struggling with inefficiency, conflict with his parents, resentments, and difficulty doing what he needed to do when he didn't feel like it. At a more profound level, he was confronted with the challenges of self-management, commitment, organizing himself, taming his feelings, setting priorities, and making decisions about the person he wanted to be and how to go about becoming that person.
How do we get ourselves to do the right (and promised) things when we just don't feel like it? There are many techniques, of course, and this is within the province of help from therapists, teachers, parents, mentors, and even peers. There may be occasional epiphanies, but chiseling character takes time. From my 40 years of professional experience (as well as more decades of personal development), the bottom line is that adaptive behavior change, positive character building, and happiness evolve more from aligning with God in a right relationship than with seeking personal benefit, living out of the context of entitlement, or expecting that full explanations for life's mysteries and inequities will be satisfactorily supplied.
We should all examine our motivations and their relationships with our desires, behaviors, and worldviews. Along the way, the practices of pleasing and thanking provide course correction, humility, peacefulness, and a great deal of happiness.
I am really a happy person. On down days (I have them occasionally), I ask God to understand and comfort me. Even when things don't go my way (as is often the case), I remind myself that the world is not here to wait on me or to favor me. When it does, that's a bonus.
I've had a traumatic life, and I grew up in an environment where I learned an emotional diet of expecting the hole instead of the bagel. I suffered through a long, self-imposed regimen of feeling sorry for myself, so I would not claim to be an optimist. I regularly struggle against being perfectionist, impatient, self-centered, and the continuing remnants of my sense of entitlement. Still, I regard each day as a set of opportunities and challenges to find ways to please and to be thankful. I know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:3-4).
Abraham Lincoln said, "Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be." Well, I've made up my mind that by practicing please and thank you I can better develop a godly character to keep me happy. I've also decided that on most days, I prefer to look at the world and God through rose-colored lenses. My point of focus for clear vision is a cross.